Kids shouldn't be charged as sex offenders

Corey Walgren, a 16-year old honor roll student from Naperville, Illinois, recently stood accused by a school resource officer of some dishonorable behavior: allegedly showing friends a cellphone recording of he and a female classmate engaged in sexual acts.

It's not clear whether Walgren actually did what he was accused of, but if he did, it would unquestionably be a crude and boorish act that merited discipline. Alas, Illinois state law has another term for it: child pornography. Facing potential prosecution on a sexual abuse charge, Walgren committed suicide in January.

Contrary to logic, laws designed to protect children from sexual predators often result in punishing children themselves, with what can be lifelong detrimental consequences. In fact, it is possible for two 16-year-olds in a fully consensual relationship to be charged with abusing each other. This neither protects children nor society from harm. In Corey’s young mind, death became the only way to escape the threats of legal action from school officials.

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Given the challenges such laws pose at the state level, it's important to guard against proposals that would convert childhood mistakes into federal crimes. Such is the case with H.R. 1761, the Protecting Against Child Exploitation (PACE) Act. Introduced by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), the bill sets out to protect children from sexual exploitation by criminalizing “the knowing consent of the visual depiction, or live transmission, of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, and for other purposes.” Violation of the law would carry a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence and, in many cases, lifelong registration as a sex offender.

 

It's particularly unfortunate that the bill cuts against what have been bipartisan efforts to reverse a nationwide problem of overcriminalization. With 439 new offenses added to the U.S. code between 2008 to 2013, there are now more than 4,500 federal criminal laws, a total that excludes the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations. Each one of these federal laws typically began as a well-intentioned effort to protect Americans. But taken together, the trend feeds into a mass incarceration epidemic that frequently ensnares otherwise law-abiding citizens.

H.R. 1761 offers a perfect example of that trend, as its supporters fail to consider the prevalence of teenage "sexting" and the ways the statute would make criminals out of many otherwise law-abiding children, those it aims to protect. As has been noted by Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottImpeachment looms over Dem choice on Judiciary Overnight Regulation: FCC, FTC unveil plan to police internet after net neutrality repeal | Justices turn down case on LGBT worker rights | Dems seek delay of new tipping rule | Industry sues over California drug pricing law Overnight Finance: Scorekeeper says House tax bill won't pay for itself | Fight over Treasury's analysis of tax plan | GOP worries about tax bill's unpopularity | What's ahead in year end spending fight MORE (D-Va.), the law’s inclusion of any "attempt or conspiracy" to engage in submitting or retrieving photos of a sexual nature is particularly troubling. Rep. Scott reasoned that: “If a teenager goads a friend to ask a teenager to take a sexually explicit image of herself, just by asking, he could be guilty of conspiracy or attempt, and the judge must sentence that teenager to at least 15 years in prison.”

To make matters worse, the U.S. Justice Department recently moved to enhance use of prosecutorial tools, such as mandatory minimum sentences, as directed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his memorandum to federal prosecutors. If this bill becomes law, we would expect a surge in juvenile incarceration.

Most recently, H.R. 1761 passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority at the end of May. The bill was opposed by 53 Democrats, and just two Republicans – Reps. Justin AmashJustin AmashOvernight Defense: House votes to renew surveillance program | More drones, troops headed to Afghanistan | Former officers urge lawmakers to curb Trump's nuclear powers Overnight Tech: House votes to reauthorize surveillance powers | Twitter on defensive after Project Veritas video | Senate panel to hold hearing on bitcoin Overnight Cybersecurity: House votes to renew NSA spying | Trump tweets spark confusion | Signs Russian hackers are targeting Olympics | Bannon expected to appear before House Intel panel MORE (R-Mich.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).  Two amendments were proposed in the House to protect teenagers from getting swept up as potential predators under the bill. One would have ensured that teens would escape punishment as sex offenders under the law, and the other would have eliminated mandatory minimum penalties. However, neither amendment managed to pass. H.R. 1761 now sits in the Senate and has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

With zealous lawmakers at the ready, overcriminalization continues to pose a threat to our society and freedoms. Injecting government into every aspect of our lives fails to promote public safety; instead, it continues to burden our justice system with problems our communities are responsible to solve. H.R. 1761, unfortunately, threatens children and their future. In order to avoid tragic stories like that of Corey Walgren and others, it is vital that the Senate reject this legislation.

Christina Delgado (@Steena12) is justice policy manager for the R Street Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.